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UMass hockey hoping highly touted defenseman Brandon Montour makes an impact



Last modified: Saturday, January 10, 2015
AMHERST — The expectations on Brandon Montour probably aren’t fair.

The 20-year-old freshman hasn’t played in a college hockey game yet and will have had just two practices under his belt when he makes his UMass debut Tuesday against Northeastern at the Mullins Center.

He’s entitled to jitters, growing pains and some time to grow like anybody else.

But the Minutemen (4-11-0, 1-9-0 Hockey East) have been struggling badly. They need a shot in the arm. The arrival of the highest NHL draft pick in program history is as promising a reason for optimism as there is.

Montour was a second-round pick (55th overall) of the Anaheim Ducks in the 2014 NHL draft. Playing last season for the Waterloo (Iowa) Blackhawks of the USHL, Montour earned that league’s player of the year and defenseman of the year honors. Since the USHL became a top-flight junior league in 2002, Montour’s 62 points (14 goals, 48 assists in 60 games) were the most ever by a defenseman. This season, he had six goals and 15 assists in 17 games.

Teams at every level covet puck-moving defenseman. When the Minutemen have had true offensive catalysts on the blue line — Thomas Pöck, Justin Braun, Matt Irwin and Marvin Degon — they’ve been a much better team.

After staying in junior hockey for the first semester to complete necessary eligibility requirements, Montour will wear his UMass No. 26 jersey for the first time at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Northeastern. The Huskies are a Hockey East opponent, but it’s not a conference game.

Montour woke up at 5 a.m. in Brampton, Ontario, Sunday morning and drove more than 470 miles across New York State to reach Amherst by noon. He had just enough time to catch his breath before joining his new teammates for a 2 p.m. practice.

“It’s been a pretty busy schedule, but it’s a relief and it’s exciting to be here,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for a year and a half now, but it’s finally here. It’s been a long road, but it’s time to move on to the next chapter so that’s good. It was good to get my feet wet. I haven’t been on the ice much in the past couple of weeks. Getting back out there was good to get to know a new team.”

UMass could use the help. The Minutemen are Hockey East’s worst defensive team allowing 4.47 goals per game. While Montour’s specialty is offense, the 6-foot, 170-pound Ontario native’s ability to carry the puck out of the defensive zone should help curb opponent chances.

In Sunday’s practice, he worked with UMass’ power-play and penalty-killing unit. UMass coach John Micheletto said he’ll throw Montour to the wolves — or in this case Huskies — right away.

“It’s obviously an interesting situation with a single game getting him in before the break. We’ll use him up to his physical capabilities trying to get him on the run learning what he can,” Micheletto said. “He obviously won’t have everything we do down, but we’ll let him run a little bit and figure things out on the fly. We’ll put him in every situation in the nonconference game on Tuesday to see where he is. Certainly the power play has been his forte in the past.”

Montour is eager to contribute and thought UMass’ Olympic-sized ice surface would make his speed and skating ability an asset.

“I just want to get comfortable with the guys first,” he said. “But I want to play a big role with this team. Offensively during the rush is my strength, using my skating on the big ice. I’m really excited to see the possibilities of the big ice at UMass. I can hopefully use that to my advantage. Being at Waterloo ... has really helped me defensively. I’m playing more of a two-way game, but when the time comes, I’ll get in the play and join the offense.”

The midseason arrival figures to speed up his on-ice acclimation. Most freshman are learning to be college hockey players and college students at the same time. Montour will have almost a month to focus on hockey before he needs to balance his time with academics.

“It’ll be a little easier with a little more time on his hands. He’ll be acclimated with the hockey part of it prior to engaging with the school part of it,” Micheletto said. “Most guys are trying to balance all those things. He’ll be able to ease into it.”

The two practices and Tuesday’s game will be kind of a sneak peak for Montour. After the game, the team will scatter for the holiday break. Montour will make the seven-hour trek back to Ontario either Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. He’ll make it again shortly after Christmas, returning for a much longer stay. The Catamount Cup in Burlington, Vermont, on Dec. 28-29 kicks off the last 17 games of the season.

“Getting that game in before Christmas break, when I come back, I’ll know what to expect,” he said. “I’m going to just keep it simple and see how the speed is, how the pace is right off the bat and go from there.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage